Sealing is one of the traditional means of livelihood for people in the countries around the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic. The Norwegian seal hunt is based mainly on harp seals and hooded seals. Stocks of both species are growing, and neither species is threatened.
Norwegian sealing takes place in the Barents Sea outside the mouth of the White Sea, in Russia’s economic zone (the East Ice), and off Greenland (the West Ice). The Norwegian quotas are set on the basis of scientific recommendations from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (NAFO) and the Institute of Marine Research in Norway. These recommendations are used as a basis for drawing up a multi-species management regime, which takes into account, for example, how harvesting seals will affect other species. In 2007, Norway’s overall quota is 46 200 adult seals, 15 000 in the East Ice and 31 200 in the West Ice. Russia is responsible for managing the harp seal stock in the East Ice, while the stocks in the West Ice come under the fisheries jurisdiction of several countries and live partly in international waters.
Norwegian sealing is sound resource management
In all, there are about eight million harp and hooded seals in the North Atlantic, and almost three million in the areas where Norwegian sealing takes place. Stocks of both species are growing.
To maintain seal stocks at a reasonable level, it is necessary to harvest them. The daily energy requirement of a harp seal is equivalent to two and a half to three kilograms of herring or capelin. The large seal stocks are making heavy inroads into stocks of various fish species, including some that are used for human consumption. In the North-east Atlantic, harp seals alone eat as much herring as is caught by the whole Norwegian fishing fleet.
If seal populations become too large, some species may migrate over long distances to find food. This has at times resulted in massive seal invasions along the Norwegian coast. The animals eat large amounts of fish that would otherwise be used by people as food, and cause extensive damage to fishing gear and fish farms. In addition, thousands of seals have drowned after becoming entangled in fishing nets.
Different marine species influence one another both directly and indirectly. The people who are responsible for managing them must take such interactions into account. If it is decided to harvest one stock, the effects of this decision on other species must also be considered. This is a generally accepted principle that applies to the management of all wild species that are not threatened.
Subsidised for environmental reasons
For a long time, the market for sealskins was weak, reducing the profitability of the sealing industry. However, the prices of skins have risen in the past couple of years, and most of the income from sealing is still derived from the sale of skins. There is also growing interest in other products such as meat, blubber and carcasses, including seal oil for medicinal purposes.
Norwegian sealing currently receives state support. This is necessary to ensure sound regulation of seal stocks and to maintain traditional hunting skills so that seal populations can continue to be appropriately regulated. At the same time, purposeful efforts are being made to develop markets for new seal products, so that the industry can become independent of subsidies.
Legislation and control
Norway has strict, detailed legislation governing sealing, including dates for the sealing season, quotas, methods of killing, mandatory training for sealers, approval of vessels and inspection.
According to the legislation, animals must be killed as quickly, humanely and painlessly as possible. The only types of equipment Norwegian sealers are allowed to use are rifles and the hakapik (a kind of gaff). Adult seals are shot with rifles, while seal pups are killed using either a rifle or a hakapik. The hakapik may look primitive, but is in fact an efficient tool that stuns an animal immediately and kills it quickly. Norwegian legislation does not permit catches of suckling pups, in other words pups that have not been abandoned by their mothers.
Sealers are required to take a course and a shooting test every year before the sealing season. Each sealing vessel carries an inspector on board. The inspectors have veterinary qualifications or the equivalent, and report directly to the fisheries authorities.